Kerry Mccarthy MP on what leaving the EU means for food and farming - and why the end of the CAP could be an opportunity to reshape agriculture for the better.
This article was originally published in the New Ground , SERA’s members’ magazine, in Autumn 2016, when Andrea Leadsom MP was Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
As the new Environment Secretary starts to get her head around the implications of Brexit for her Department, she may call to mind, ruefully, the old idiom ‘be careful what you wish for ’
DEFRA’s work - on food, farming, fisheries and the environment - is intertwined with the EU more than almost any other part of Government; untangling it will be a mammoth task for a Department which has already had its budget slashed and lost a quarter of its workforce.
Obviously what happens now is still very much up for negotiation. But if we are to leave the EU, we have to see this as a once in a generation opportunity to design a sustainable, ethical and healthy food system.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is obviously the starting point. We should not lose sight of why CAP was developed – to ensure that everybody had enough food to eat. Amid all the old jokes about wine lakes and butter mountains, it is easy to forget that Europe’s food supply has not always been so secure, and that rationing continued well after World War Two ended.
Food shortages are now mostly a thing of the past, but food security – or food sovereignty as it is sometimes called– is still very much a live issue.
The UK produces less than 60 per cent of the food we eat. Twentyseven per cent of our food comes from the EU, including 40 per cent of our fruit and vegetables. Imports of indigenous foods – food we could grow here – are increasing. The collapse of the pound is likely to put food prices up. Labour shortages could have a significant impact on food production and prices if freedom of movement is halted. Ninety per cent of fruit and vegetables grown in the UK are picked and packed by 60,000 to 70,000 migrant workers, and there is already talk of moving production overseas: not because we can’t grow things here, but because we can’t harvest them.
Producing our own food is better for the economy, better for the environment and gives us more confidence about the provenance of what we eat. If we are to feed ourselves as a nation, we will have to address not just the labour issue, but other big challenges ahead.
Our farming industry is set to lose 55 per cent of its income when CAP payments end. Countries like New Zealand have abolished farming subsidies but, without radical change in the UK, such a move would devastate farmers who are used to making a loss on their produce. With farmers receiving just £10 billion of the £198 billion UK consumers spend on food each year, CAP essentially subsidises market failure.
But simply substituting CAP with a like-for-like replacement would be a wasted opportunity. Public subsidies must promote public goods.
The UK must build on CAP reforms that were intended to promote more environmentally responsible approaches. Current farming practices too often increase flood risk, pollute our water and air, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, damage our soil and threaten biodiversity. We cannot continue to subsidise environmentally damaging behaviour. Instead, we need to incentivise a more sustainable approach to farming, look at how this could actually reduce farmers’ costs, and ensure they are not penalised for safeguarding our countryside.
The market’s failure to recognise farmers’ costs has encouraged some to consider moving towards intensive farming as a way to reduce overheads and increase output. This is not the solution, particularly for dairy farmers when supply already outstrips demand. Intensive farming is too often associated with increased environmental damage and lower animal welfare standards. Such a move would be counter-productive, particularly if we want to promote British produce around the world on the basis of its high quality.
In years gone by, the UK led the way on animal welfare, pushing for EU-wide bans on veal crates and sow stalls. More recently, the EU has been showing the way forward, and the UK lagging behind, with this Government’s recent attempts to downgrade the Farm Animal Welfare Codes discrediting any claim to take animal welfare seriously. We must not allow the Tories to use Brexit – and its ideological drive towards cutting ‘red tape’ and regulation - as an opportunity to row back on animal welfare standards.
Europe has sometimes been a convenient excuse for Ministers who can claim their hands are tied by the EU. We will, for instance, now see whether the Government genuinely cares about curbing live animal exports, or better food labelling.
If we are to support British farmers, we do need mandatory country of origin labelling. If we are to improve farm animal welfare standards, we need to expand method of production labelling – as we have already done for eggs - and ensure consumers aren’t misled by labels which merely hint at higher welfare systems. A better labelling system could promote choice and consumer confidence, and help us market British produce around the world on the basis of its quality and ethical standards.
But we also need a Government that takes food safety and food standards seriously. It was the EU that intervened to block misleading food claims and to give us reliable nutrition labelling. It was the EU that responded to salmonella concerns and the BSE crisis by creating the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). And EFSA’s work has been credited with helping to expose the horsemeat scandal. Compare and contrast with the Tories’ slow and timid response to that, when they had already cut the Food Standards Agency’s budget and undermined its ability to protect consumers.
We need vigilance on food crime and food fraud, but the Tories just aren’t interested. Nor are they interested in the safety of our food, which could be an issue in negotiating trade agreements.
One of the many misconceptions during the referendum campaign was that leaving the EU would protect us from TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership the EU is negotiating with the USA). Aside from concerns about the NHS, dispute settlement and other issues, some of us have also been worried that TTIP would open up our market to food riddled with chemicals, meat injected with growth hormones and chicken washed with chlorine. There were fears also that the EU would be forced to abandon the precautionary approach that has been key to protecting consumers.
But the EU has said it will not compromise on standards and citizens across Europe have united against a deal that could damage our environment, threaten our health and put jobs and rights at risk.
Now, our fate rests with Liam Fox – someone who has failed to support climate change legislation and who has based his career on an unfounded paranoia about “red tape”. He will be tasked with negotiating bi-lateral trade agreements. We should be under no illusions about how far down environmental protections, food standards and workers’ rights will be on his list of negotiating priorities.
And our new Secretary of State for International Trade will find that it is more difficult to “take back control” than he claimed. The combined EU economies are greater than the US economy, but the UK will now be trying to negotiate a deal with a country whose economy is more than six times the value of ours.
So the new Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs faces a daunting in-tray. We will need to remind her why this all matters. We will need to ensure that she does not simply see this as a bureaucratic exercise to repeal EU rules and cut up the “red tape” that protects us all.
Also in her in-tray will be Defra’s long-delayed and much-criticised (by those who have seen it in draft) 25 Year Food and Farming Plan, which now needs to be rewritten in the wake of the referendum result. I hope the revised plan has more to say about the environment and sustainability, and about climate change, which is one of the greatest threats to food security. Our food supply could contribute 2°C to global warming by 2050, yet food and farming was barely on the agenda at the Paris talks.
We need a strategy that does not ignore a mounting social justice scandal and growing health crisis. The Trussell Trust had to provide more than 1.1 million food parcels last year. In 2014/15, more than 7,000 people were admitted to hospital with a diagnosis of malnutrition - a 57 per cent increase under the Coalition Government. A third of 11 year olds are overweight or obese and children in deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese than children in least deprived areas. Only a quarter of adults eat the recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day.
So we need the new Environment Secretary to work with the Departments of Health and Education, and with the remnants of the former Department for Energy and Climate Change, as well as the new EU Exit team. We need from her a long-term vision for our food and farming industry, and a comprehensive strategy to improve our food sovereignty, protect our environment and promote healthy, affordable diets. Labour needs to be watching her and pushing her every step of the way.
Kerry McCarthy MP, Member of Parliament for Bristol East and former Shadow Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs